As angry and passionate an attack on institutional prostitution as anything you’ll see from Mizoguchi or anywhere else, director Chor Yuen uses all the opulent romanticism of the Shaw Brothers style at its peak to expose the twisted black heart of the brothels that casually make up the background of so many adventure films. Kidnapped and enslaved to a whorehouse, the hero Ainu is beaten and raped (by the leading citizens of the town) into submission. The one man who tries to help her is a servant at the brothel who knows that what is happening is evil but pretends to be mute. When eventually he attempts to save her, he proves too weak. Later, as she begins taking her revenge, killing all the men who abused her one by one, a local police officer tries to stop her. Though he’s not unsympathetic to her cause, the law prosecutes murderers and is not interested in what goes on behind whorehouse doors. As one of his fellow cops tells him, “Whores have no history. They are either forced or they volunteer.” The tautology of that second sentence sticks with me: of course those are the only two options. The state is willfully ignorant. Ainu can only protect herself, and she does so by twisting the lust of her tormentors against themselves, not just her ‘clients’ but also the madam who loves her. “You deserve to die, you horny bastard.” Ainu tells one of her victims, and it's hard for us to disagree with her.
This idea of revenge lies at the heart of so many kung fu films, and many action films in general. Not just in Hong Kong, but also in the vigilante cycle of American action films that popped up also in the early 1970s (Death Wish, the Dirty Harry movies and so on), as well as the series of rape/revenge horror movies that Courtesan could be more specifically identified with. In talking about his 1986 film Righting Wrongs (aka Above the Law), in which he plays a prosecutor who begins killing the gangsters he can’t legally convict, Yuen Biao specifically identifies this as a Western theme, as something they’re borrowing from American action films. I don’t know that the theme becomes substantially different when filtered through Confucian/Buddhist ethics instead of Judeo-Christian ethics. These things are universal.
What differentiates this film from the typical Shaw revenge fantasy is the sexual nature of the crimes (at this point Shaws was a pretty chaste studio, though that changed as the 70s progressed, with competition from the more graphic Golden Harvest studio and smaller, less prestigious outfits) and the identification of the audience with the victim. In many a kung fu film, the hero is taking revenge for crimes committed against his family, his master, and only occasionally himself (usually he gets beaten up by the villains). For example, in Sammo Hung’s directorial debut The Iron-Fisted Monk, the hero comes to the aid of a friend, a dye-worker who’s wife, mother, and sister have been raped and murdered by local thugs. The revenge motive is there, but the audience is somewhat distanced from the experience, though Hung depicts the rapes explicitly (by the standards of the time). Director Chor, however, locks us into Ainu’s point-of-view from the beginning of the film and we stay there for the first 20 minutes or so as she’s abused (though he tastefully freezes the frame rather than graphically depict the rapes, not that that decreases the horror). As such, we in the audience find ourselves greatly looking forward to her revenge. It’s here that Chor slows the pace for the last hour, giving us space to think about the consequences and meanings of her, and our, blood lust. Yes, we’ll get the catharsis of seeing the villains punished, but the mise-en-scène complicates that satisfaction.
This might be the most pictorially beautiful Shaw Brothers film I’ve ever seen, opposing the ugliness of the subject matter with lushly romantic environments. Typically gorgeous period costumes and sets are blanketed by a layer of snow and moonlight, giving these scenes of horrible vengeance a kind of magical, fairy tale quality. Chor’s staging is never uninteresting, he uses a lot of close-up two shots, with the actors on different planes and looking in different directions, with shallow focus: figures isolated despite a shared space. The beauty of Ainu’s environments is literally other-worldly, a world her trauma has disconnected her from, and that she can never experience or enjoy. The revenge she takes is not triumphant, it can only be tragic.